Excavation Slideshow

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Learn more about the facinating history of one of Boise's oldest buildings. More

PHOTOS: Top right: Ella McCallie clears artifacts from underneath the old porch.

Center left: Abram Grisham (left) goes over artifact documentation with College of Western Idaho volunteer, Katt Mitchell.

Center Left: Dr. Jim Julius family and family - Christmas 1953.

Bottom right: Mark Warner (left) gives President Chuck Staben and Mary Beth Staben a closer look at a few of the items discovered at the site.

Contact & Location


The Department of
Sociology & Anthropology

Physical Address:
Phinney Hall 101
PHONE: (208) 885-6751
FAX: (208) 885-2034
E-MAIL: socanth@uidaho.edu

Mailing Address:
Department of
Sociology & Anthropology
c/o University of Idaho
875 Perimeter Drive MS 1110
Moscow, ID 83844-1110

The Remnants of Life

UI Team Leads Excavation of Ft. Boise's Historic "Surgeon's Quarters"

By Micki Panttaja

Ella McCallieChristmas 1953. A Ft. Boise Army doctor and his family gather around their dining table and stop to take a snapshot. A click and a flash, and like a visual time capsule the moment is preserved. 

Six decades later, the photograph hangs still hangs on the dining room wall of the “Surgeon’s Quarters” as a reminder, to the University of Idaho archaeologists and local volunteers, of the people who inhabited the 150-year-old home and left behind remnants of their lives.

Excavating the front porch area of the building, UI anthropology professor Mark Warner leads the team in search of “these remnants,” which include and a 1902 milk-bottle cap, a ceramic marble and a child’s saucer from a tea set.

“It tells us stories about how people lived. What they ate, what medicines they took. … It’s the stories that come out of stuff,” Warner says. “I would know a lot about you if I went through your garbage.”

Katt Mitchell and Abram GrishhamMuch more than just a trash treasure hunt, the dig is part of a collaborative effort between Boise’s Veteran’s Administration Medical Center (VAMC) and Preservation Idaho, a nonprofit organization that identifies projects and raises funds to support the preservation of historic places and sites throughout the state.

The university’s role is to provide the archaeological expertise in uncovering and documenting artifacts that will one day be on exhibit in the restored building, which will serve as an interpretive center and functional office for the VAMC’s public information officer.
Warner worked closely with Preservation Idaho on the Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga Boarding House project in 2012, which revealed the rich culture of the Basque community that existed in Boise in the late 1800s.

“John Bertram, the current Preservation Idaho president, was really enthused by what happened on the Basque project, and that led to wanting to find something else to work on.”

Bertram said the Surgeon’s Quarters was an obvious candidate for restoration. Vacant since 1992, the building was constructed out of sandstone and built by English brick maker Charles May, the same builder who was responsible for the Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga Boarding House. In addition, it was one of the first buildings built as part of Camp Boise, which was foundedin 1863 to help protect emigrants and miners who were traveling through the area on their way to Oregon. The first phase of the project deals with the exterior restoration, but ultimately Bertram would like to restore the interior it pre-Civil War era.

A family sitting at the dinner table at Christmas in 1953“It’s not just the architecture . . . it’s the history of the people who lived here,” Bertram adds. “One of those people is the young girl in the Christmas photo. She’s now in her sixties, and has come by and shared stories of her time growing up in the house.”

In addition to the obvious historical value of the site, the Surgeon’s Quarters excavation is also a research and learning opportunity for Idaho students. Overseeing the work as the Field Supervisor is UI graduate student Abram Grisham. Grisham, who will be using the results of the dig as his thesis, is responsible for designing the dig, organizing the volunteers, and making sure the artifacts are documented and catalogued properly.

Mary Beth Staben, Chuck Staben and Mark WarnerEllie McCallie, who will be attending UI in the fall after transferring from the College of Western Idaho, was invited to work on the project while she was visiting the Moscow campus earlier in the spring.

“I met with Mark Warner during Vandal Friday,” explains McCallie. “He knew I lived in Boise and he said, ‘I know it’s last minute, but would you like to work on a dig this summer?’ . . . It’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity to do something like this, so I’ve been very excited about it since April.”

McCallie is also getting a jump on her UI career by earning college credit for her work.

The site also served as an opportunity for the public to learn more. UI President Chuck Staben and his wife, Mary Beth, were among the over 400 visitors that came to tour the property, learn about its history and watch real archaeology take place.

Boise resident Connie Seward explained that she has volunteered on many archaeological digs over the past 13 years, but this particular site has special meaning.

“I homeschooled my children and I would take them on fieldtrips and walking tours throughout Boise . . . and we often came to the VA grounds because the history,” she said. “That was 18 years ago, and over the years I saw this building get in worse shape and I was sick that we were going to lose it.”

Seward is thrilled to be a part of the excavation and thankful that the university is helping Perseveration Idaho and the VA to preserve the Ft. Boise history.

“It’s not only going to be restored, but the story has come full circle. The soldiers came here originally to help protect the citizens, and now we are here taking care of the soldiers.”